Rebel Geeks

Rebel Geeks: Give Us Back Our Data

Evgeny Morozov decodes the digital landscape to show how new technologies provide a smokescreen for a huge power shift.

Technology researcher and thinker Evgeny Morozov believes the entire discussion around cool, new innovative technology is a giant distraction from the most important issues.

What has happened I think is that Silicon Valley has usurped our imagination and has made it impossible for us to dream on our own terms. We have to treat data more or less the way we would treat a lot of natural resources. We have to treat them as something that cannot be sold.

by Evgeny Morozov, technology researcher and thinker

In this film, Morozov unravels the digital landscape and shows us the real processes that are leading the huge transfer of power away from ordinary people.

We meet him in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he is researching the digital history of the world.

Morozov shows us how cutting-edge biometric and facial recognition technology leads to a world without privacy. He argues that instant identification leads to over-discrimination.

Morozov views data as a “new powerful weapon”. 

“It plays an important role in generating value for those companies and we have to understand where it comes from. And it comes from us – the users,” he says.

“One has to be very naive to believe that this data is not going to shape how we live the rest of our lives, especially when insurance companies and banks are so eager to incorporate it in their decision-making,” says Morozov. “Unless we change the legal status of data, we’re not going to get very far.”

We also look at the reality of the so-called “sharing economy”, where people pool their assets, such as houses or, cars  and their time and labour. Is this really as friendly as the word “sharing” might imply or just another business? We meet the lawyer representing Uber taxi drivers in a nationwide law suit against the company. The drivers have found the “flexible working” conditions are so detrimental to their business that they’ve now had to fight against the company for their basic employment rights.

We also see how self-trackers who use health-focused technology like Fitbit end up handing over large amounts of their data. But what does it mean when people begin monitoring everything about themselves? We examine the broader consequences for everyone. 

With data-harvesting companies collecting our social and financial information and selling it on to other companies, we head to a start-up in New York that is encouraging individuals to reclaim control of their personal data.

Yet, as Morozov argues, this is another way in which the poor and disenfranchised are marginalised even more. And such start-ups mask this exclusion. “What you hear from start-ups on this matter is that – it’s a political decision, it’s not up to us. We’re here just to empower people,” Morozov says.


By Dan Davies

Those of us who are about the same age as the personal computer first encountered the digital world in a difficult, clunky and ultimately geeky way. 

The early “home” computers had names such as the Sinclair ZX81, ZX Spectrum, and Commodore 64. Turning on these machines involved going round to the back of the TV, plugging them in and then hoping for the glamour of … a blank screen and maybe a flashing cursor. To load a game involved an audio cassette tape, wires and anywhere between five to 20 minutes.  

But that clunkiness encouraged many, including myself, to have a go and see what we could make these things do. I quickly realised I wasn’t a very good programmer, and so bought programming books – the computing equivalent of cook books – from which one typed in the BASIC code that might eventually become a simple game or simulator. But even I realised that if you changed some variables and messed with a few basic terms, you could make the ZX Spectrum do weird and wacky things.  

As with the early days of the car, you needed a reasonable idea of how a computer worked to use it and there was nothing seamless or effortless about the experience. 

Fast forward to the 21st Century and we merely touch the screen of the miniature portable supercomputers we call smartphones and they are able to magically run our lives. Unlike the kids fiddling with audio leads and cassette tapes, the modern digital experience makes us feel like omniscient superheroes whose every half-thought is anticipated and obeyed. 

But having had that early glimpse into the workings of the digital world, the slicker the experience gets, the more nervous I become. Why? Because computers are fabulous illusionists. The screens we stare at are not eyes that speak their truth. They are one output device among many, and give no real indication of what the machine is really doing. While you’re reading this on your smartphone, it is probably also updating your newspaper and weather app. But it might also be telling its maker where you are and letting the Facebook app switch on your camera to see what you’re up to. (Check your user agreement)

As technology pervades more and more aspects of our lives, from dating to sleep tracking, from Apple Pay to measuring our fitness, I’ve been shocked at the naivety of the discussion that regards tech mostly as “fun cool stuff”. Because every “freedom” digital technology offers – everything we get a computer to do for us – is accompanied by the equal possibility of surveillance and alteration. 

Spotify or iTunes save you the hassle of putting on a CD, but now the provider knows everything about your musical taste, and can offer you something else that is similar. The musical experience has changed; to listen now means to be marketed to. Similarly, if you pay with a smartphone you don’t have the hassle of getting change out of your pocket, but your bank and phone provider know exactly what you’re buying.  

What shocked me was how rarely, or superficially, the wider implications of these developments were discussed. 

Until, that is, I encountered the work of Evgeny Morozov and found at last some critical analysis of technology. Reading his book To Save Everything, Click Here was like being told: “It’s OK, you’re not going mad, this really is happening,” which was personally reassuring but also politically terrifying. 

What he details so acutely are the ways technology is changing not just our behaviour, but also our political and social relations. The rhetoric of “innovation” and “disruption”- coupled of course with the reality of this amazing technology – has got us to accept things we probably wouldn’t vote for in an election. If a party said: “We want to get rid of all labour protections and scrap the minimum wage,” you would expect few to vote for it. But when an app or a website results in that same outcome we seem ready to accept that we’re backwards if we “stand in the way of progress”. 

But this “innovation” is actually embedding the logic of capitalism into more and more aspects of our lives, from work to healthcare to sleep. At the same time, the tech giants’ dominance now rests on their vast data collection and processing powers, which makes them almost impossible to disrupt. The future Morozov suggests we are being ushered towards, then, is dark not only because every aspect of our lives is surveilled by powerful conglomerates that are beyond challenge, it is dark because that technology and surveillance – soon to be in our beds and fridges – will make it very difficult to diverge from a capitalist logic where we’re constantly monitoring our market value. 

That felt like an urgent subject to make a film about, but how to illustrate Morozov’s complex observations and arguments about the future? I realised the key was finding current, reallife examples that would allow the viewer to decide if this outcome was likely.

What we discovered is that there is in fact no tension between what Morozov warns about and the intentions of many technology companies – they are one and the same thing, written for all to read in their business plans, as you will see in the film. The only real difference is in the interpretation of whether this is a good or a bad thing. 

In “Give Us Back Our Data” entrepreneurs and techies make the case for the future of technology as they see it, which many tech lovers will find familiar. After so much celebratory coverage of technology, however, Morozov’s insistence that it is more than just shiny, cool and politically neutral might be shocking. But he is important because he brings longoverdue balance to this crucial debate, and it is ultimately this that allows the audience to think deeply about what we should be demanding from technology.